Skip to main content

Toward the Virtual City and The Crisis of Place

A Review of Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, 2009, 480 pps.)

For residents of Manhattan, reading Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City may lead to a strange case of urban anxiety. While his portrayal of contemporary Manhattan evokes familiar elements  – the oversize hamburgers, a strange smell in the air, the constant rumblings along Second Avenue, the comings and goings of apartment residents, the touches of fantasy in the writer's new novel seem believable, too. The creeping slippage of a real Manhattan into a manipulated simulacrum, a similar place that rings somewhat true but slightly off, has for many reasons become the new reality.

Manhattan residents already live in a kind of hallucination. Try to live with the everyday presence of the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Times Square, and the Statue of Liberty, and you, too, will be occasionally surprised or knocked over at the sight of these highly-charged symbols of the city.

Famous actors are a common sighting, interrupting a routine walk with a dose of unreality. Furthermore, walking through movies filming on location provokes surrealist situations such as confusing an acting policeman with a real one or being told by a location manager to not walk in the park and then watching an extra, complete with a similar dog, take the walk for you. More to the point, in books such as Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space (edited by Michael Sorkin, 1992), urban critics have warned of the effects of rapid gentrification in the city, a process that can lead to the transformation of pockets into amusement parks and the loss of individuality and public space.

Chronic City's character-driven plot builds on the basic strand of an urban buddy tale. A handsome actor, once a child sitcom star, Chase Insteadman, drifts through the Upper East Side, playing on his story, one made poignant by his relationship with his teenage girlfriend, Janice Trumbull, an astronaut stranded on a doomed space station. While she's in outer space, an art-girl ghostwriter, Oona Laszlo, enters the scene to steal away his affections. A growing dependence on the company of a brilliant stoner cultural critic, Perkus Tooth, gradually challenges his complacency.

Other characters include the volatile Richard Abneg, a veteran organizer of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park Riot and now a sellout adviser to the billionaire mayor, and his upper class squeeze, Georgina Hawkmanaji. Because he's fragile, insightful, and feels more real than the others, Perkus attracts the most attention. Anyone who grew up reading the great generation of interdisciplinary rock/art critics - Greil Marcus, Dave Hickey, Lester Bangs, Jim Miller, Langdon Winner, David Fricke, or many others- will recognize in Perkus a familiar voice and literary sensibility.

The action of Chronic City mostly takes place in Chase and Perkus's Upper East Side neighborhood, not in the old guard luxury blocks near Central Park but east of Lexington Avenue in the East 80s near Second Avenue. The Yorkville neighborhood, home to the surreal Marx Brothers, was for a long time an enclave of German residents.

Walking east from Fifth Avenue to Madison Avenue to Park Avenue, the buildings may be stately architectural gems, but it's not until you get to Lexington, with its many crowded small shops and eateries, that you sense the presence of a bustling worldly metropolis. Several specific locations in Lethem's novel exist in "real life," at least for now, including the Jackson Hole restaurant (1611 2nd Avenue, near E. 84th St.) and the Gracie Mews Diner (401 E. 80th St.), so it is possible to read the novel and literally follow in the characters' footsteps.

Yet, here on the outer edges of the privileged blocks of the UES, a vigorous program of condominium development and the rumbling excavations for Phase One of the Second Avenue Subway, enabled by the city’s real billionaire Mayor, can make longtime residents a bit anxious. As with many other Manhattan residents, Lethem's characters stick to their own neighborhood, latching onto familiar haunts. Losing them is traumatic.

Chronic City invites a rereading from beginning to end, but also encourages jumping in to replay or study favorite passages - the tiger that menaces the city, the illusive and mystical "chaldron," the Second Life-like Yet Another World (the name sounding like a daytime soap opera), Janice's letters from the space station, Perkus's discourse on Marlon Brando, and many more. Thumbing through the book to find beautifully written passages or buried treasure could be compared to pulling out an old record and dropping the needle on a favorite song.

The analog Perkus is not immune to the seduction of the chronic city, but his connections to the downtown scene of the 1970s and 1980s, the golden age before the fog rolls in, keep him vigilant and questioning of the new civic order, though not always coherent to his peers. No one can match him as mentor, except for perhaps a brilliant three-legged dog. This dog, a sensual Situationist, teaches Perkus additional lessons in how to subvert the controlling urban theater by showing him how to walk where the nose leads.

While we’ve learned to cope with the cinematic recreations of Manhattan by telling ourselves, “It’s only a movie,” we’re too early in the creation of the virtual city to understand how to fully deal with it or comprehend its effects on our humanity. Location-based mobile applications, computer simulations, geo-tagging programs, Street View maps, and other forms of augmented reality threaten to turn the city into a computer game, replacing our traditional bonds of place with strategic plans to conquer them. Special places that once upon a time may have had some personal meaning become winning check-in points for someone else’s venture capital.

Engaging with strangers in simulated reality, walking to meetups while texting or talking or consulting the glowing GPS to locate oneself, may open exciting avenues for sociability and connection, but we may lose the city in the process. Dear reader, as the creator of a virtual site for exploring a city too vast for my comprehension, I’ve come to accept my own responsibilities for slipping into the landscapes of fiction. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, and the best way is aimlessly, like an old rock critic or a dog, should be a way for free spirits to contemplate life’s meaning and enchantment, full of wonder and surprise.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

Museums in New York Open on Tuesdays

American Folk Art Museum , 45 W. 53rd St. Asia Society and Museum , 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) Guggenheim Museum , 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th St.) Pictured left International Center of Photography , 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street The Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1000 Fifth Avenue NEW: Beginning May 1, 2013 MoMA will be open seven days a week. 11 W. 53rd St. The Morgan Library & Museum , 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street Museum of the City of New York , 1220 Fifth Avenue New York University, Grey Art Gallery , 100 Washington Square East Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest days to remember which museums are open. See the list for NY museums open on Mondays here .

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

The Marx Brothers in New York: Interlude - On Groucho Walking

This special new series about the Marx Brothers in New York continues this week, following the brothers into a career in Broadway and into the movies, but first I would like to take a little time to discuss Groucho's peculiar way of walking. Sometimes described as a "lope" or "stoop," Groucho's silly and often lecherous walk became just as an important part of his persona as his glasses, eyebrows, cigar and greasepaint moustache. He didn't walk this walk all the time, but as you recall from the films, Groucho would often bend his knees and lean forward as he proceeded from point A to point B. To imitate Groucho properly at a costume party, it's important to get this part down. • Groucho explained that it was simply a bit of inspired improvisation. From the book Hello, I Must Be Going by Charlotte Chandler, he says, "I was just kidding around one day, and I started to walk funny. The audience liked it, so I kept it in."(pps. 153-154) Chand

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

A Walk From Lincoln Center to Zabar's

If you happen to be attending a noon or matinee performance in Lincoln Center or otherwise happen to be hanging around there for whatever reason and find you've got some time, I recommend a stroll up Broadway to Zabar's, the famous Upper West Side food emporium. This stretch of Broadway takes in the sights of several new housing sky-rises, several theaters, and some flamboyant former apartment hotels of the early 20th century. Flâneurs will love the Belle Epoque ambiance of these overly-ornamented buildings, and the distance from W. 66th or so to W. 80th is not so taxing, especially if you're dressed in shoes for the opera. View Larger Map Several noteworthy structures along the way - The Dorilton, 171 W 71st St., from 1900-02, at the northeast corner of Broadway, is considered a Beaux Arts masterpiece. The 72nd St subway station dates from 1904 and is a funny little thing. Verdi Square, at the convergence of Broadway, Amsterdam, an W. 73rd, is a nice small park fea

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

Coping with Anxiety and Crisis: A Selected List of Fine Chocolate Stores in New York

Fears of recession, concerns about the state of the world, worries about job prospects, and anxieties about the future dominate the news headlines these days, but these kinds of stories are perennial, coloring the way we conduct our lives. Fortunately, we now believe that the 400+ ingredients in dark chocolate may alleviate some of the worst symptoms of this kind of external stress. Had a bad day? A little brisk walk to your local chocolate boutique may fix you right up. It's funny, but studies show that taking a chocolate supplement doesn't work as well for a sense of individual well-being as the act of eating a piece of chocolate. I understand. I think aesthetics matter. Eating beautiful chocolates can make you feel all yummy and special on the inside. My chocolate cravings can even be satisfied by unravelling the classic and minimalist Hershey's bar. Yet, I still prefer a visit to the city's finest purveyors of chocolate. At the following places (links provided), c